At a very different Masters, Tiger Woods looked exactly the same as always

  • Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
  • Covered golf for more than 20 years
  • Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods longs for peace. For most of his professional life, he has sought refuge from the masses, on his yacht, appropriately named Privacy, or at his gated enclave in South Florida.

Such calm is nearly impossible to find in Woods’ golf world, and yet there it was on Thursday morning at Augusta National.

There were nearly 100 people who gathered near the 10th tee as the defending Masters champion began his quest for green jacket No. 6, and a large contingent was still there in the vast expanse made possible by the removal of a large block of bleachers that sits behind the 12th tee.

Needless to say, it was a far different scene than the one Woods has encountered countless times over his career. And to compare it to the last time he traversed this hallowed ground during the final round of the 2019 Masters is to extrapolate oneself to a different universe.

Woods has often given credence to the idea that the boisterous, jacked multitude of thousands who cheered him on during the 2019 Masters helped lift him to victory.

For a man who loves quiet, he now misses the noise.

“There’s no patrons, no roars,” Woods said after matching his best-ever first-round score in 23 Masters, a 4-under-par 68. “We’d ask the camera guys where did the ball end up, but we just don’t know. That’s very different. A lot of firsts [in Thursday’s first round]. That’s kind of the way this entire year has been.

“The fact that we’re able to compete for Masters this year, considering all that’s been going on, it’s a great opportunity for all of us.”

Woods is thankful for the chance, rueful of the circumstances. He delayed his competitive return to golf after the pandemic shutdown because he was unsure how life would be in a COVID-19 world.

And he’s never really gotten on track. Woods tied for 37th at the PGA Championship in August — and that’s his best finish in six tournaments prior to the Masters. In eight tournaments total, he has not contended, and typically finds himself way out of the mix by the time the network television cameras turn on for the weekend.

But Thursday brought him back to familiar ground, and perhaps he willed himself to a good score without the supporters who typically carry him. Sure, his buddy Peyton Manning was there. So was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. As Augusta National members, they were among the few allowed to attend.

Woods went the entire round without a bogey, a first for him on opening day at the Masters and the first time in any major round since the 2009 PGA Championship — a span of 105 rounds.

Woods hit 15 greens in regulation, always a good sign. He had no three-putts. He found 10 of 14 fairways, and for a November Masters, that is important because the rough is far more penal than we see in April.

Other than Bryson DeChambeau, nobody had more people following him, and yet for Woods, it is so far removed from his reality that it is difficult for him to come to grips with the circumstances.

“It’s so different,” Woods said. “Shane (Lowry) was telling me [Thursday] that it was pretty exciting last week (at the Houston Open) to have the energy level of 200 people out there following his group. We haven’t had that this entire year. It’s been very different.

“This world that we live in is not what we’ve had throughout my career, and that’s something we’re going to have to get used to for some time.”

Lowry, who won The Open last year at Royal Portrush, had never played with Woods. The experience was still daunting, although far less so without the chaos that envelopes Woods at every event.

Andy Ogletree, the winner of the 2019 U.S. Amateur, earned a spot in Woods’ group as a part of Masters tradition. Woods had already won a Masters before Ogletree was born, and the Georgia Tech grad felt the pressure despite the smattering of people, playing his first four holes in 4 over par.

But he settled down to shoot 73, and even snuck in a few words with the defending champion, telling him about his stay in Augusta National’s Crow’s Next, the area of the clubhouse where amateurs are traditionally housed during the Masters.

“I was so amped up, I didn’t want to go to sleep,” Ogletree said. “I had to find a way to go to sleep. Just put my phone down, turned it off. Put it on airplane mode so the alarm would still go off — like I wasn’t going to wake up. It was super cool.

“Tiger and I were actually talking about it [Thursday] walking down one of the fairways. And he was asking me about the Crow’s Nest. Said I wish I could stay up there. He was telling me cool stories about his experience back in the day. It’s pretty neat.”

If only Ogletree knew. Tiger in the hunt with thousands upon thousands of spectators in full throat is a scene to behold, a joyful assault on the eardrums. Other than the television drones that hummed overhead, or the Sub-Air system that sucked water out of the fairways, the noise was simply that of a serene day in the park.

For now, Woods has to rely on making his own noise. He did so for one day at familiar locale filled with so many memories. And that remains the challenge.

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